Full Circle Series-Finale Recap: All Roads Lead to Sam Browne

Full Circle

Season 1 Episode 6
Editor’s Rating 3 stars

Full Circle

Season 1 Episode 6
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Photo: HBO

After five episodes of secret families, age-old misunderstandings, and impulsive decisions resulting in unforeseeable damage, the season finale of Full Circle feels a little … neat? I expected anticlimax, sure: This has never been a show concerned with traditional or predictable narrative shape. After all, all the main antagonists are either dead (Manny, Garmen) or in jail (Mrs. Mahabir) by the halfway point of “Essequibo.” But the long aftermath that follows, while necessary, doesn’t do much to overcome the feeling that everything worked out a little too tidily.

Once again, the first half of the episode is mainly focused on the Guyanese characters before pivoting back to the American ones. The raid on Mahabir’s celebration begins very early on, while Xavier efficiently evacuates Garmen’s family from their home and sends them to Powell’s Cove Park to catch an emergency seaplane back to Guyana.

The raid goes according to plan for the NYPD, but not for the USPIS (who loses Manny to a gunshot from Garmen) or the FBI (who fails to recover any helpful information on bank records). That just leaves Garmen, Xavier, Louis, and Natalia to meet up at the cove and confront the unfortunate consequences of their complicated situation.

Garmen and Xavier get there quickly with the help of an impressive hidden tunnel from his house dating back to Prohibition. But Louis and Nat have their work cut out for them. Their plan to steal the Brownes’ painting is desperate and hastily thought out, and a negative outcome is all but assured without Sam’s cooperation. But after a struggle that ends in her pointing a gun right at Louis, she decides to let him have the painting. It’s a sort of reparative gesture, or at least an attempt at one; learning that Louis tried to save her son, and realizing that he’s from a place her family bulldozed, she sees a kind of divine opportunity. She can start to right her wrongs by helping this young man return to Essequibo.

It’s ironic, of course, that that very painting ends up abandoned in the grass, an essentially worthless gesture. But Louis and Nat do manage to make it back to Guyana after Xavier flips on Garmen, cutting him down with his own machete before he can kill Louis and Nat. Again, I’m a little surprised Garmen fell for this so easily, and I’m not entirely sure how long Xavier knew where his own loyalties lay. But it works out nicely enough, with Xavier passing along flight money to Garmen’s family (along with a lie about the man’s whereabouts). He also gives Louis a nice stack of cash, so he and Nat’s financial position might not be entirely hopeless once they’re home.

The biggest scars will be psychological. That’s certainly the case for Xavier, who doesn’t return again after the inconclusive but haunting image of him watching the plane recede into the distance, headed to a place he can’t return to himself. After that, the episode refocuses on the Brownes — Sam Browne specifically. When Mel lays out the full story connecting Sam’s 20-year-old cover-up to the recent attempt on her own son’s life, we see her finally grapple with the truth of what she did and why she is being punished. Claire Danes is careful and controlled in the moment, never crossing into hysteria or melodrama. Sam just keeps her emotions in check and slowly processes the facts: After they bribed politicians like Mahabir’s husband to rewrite zoning laws for the development of the Colony at Essequibo, he kidnapped and murdered the teenage grandson of Jeff’s chess partner Clarence. It happened at 1:11 A.M., of course, at a nearby park.

None of this really plays like a huge reveal; it’s the logical final piece of a puzzle that we could mostly piece together ourselves as early as the third episode. But it’s a life-changing moment for Sam, especially because her indirect death toll includes Manny.

From here, though, she sort of just … learns her lesson. First, she comes clean to her husband, whom she forgives for the affair; she now understands how dramatically he prioritized her happiness over his own by living in a city he dislikes, and she’s amenable to his ideas of where to move. Then she visits her uncle Gene to own up to what she did and get his documentation of the illegal series A investments. Going to the feds with the information may mean a hard time, but it could help shut down operations like this one across state lines. And on a personal level, coming clean will allow her to finally come to terms with what she spent 20 years pretending she didn’t do. Without doing something, she’d never be able to look at Jared the same.

In fact, “Essequibo” frames Sam as the main character of this whole story in retrospect. And while there’s something superficially satisfying about seeing her take responsibility, it ultimately feels a little simplistic to me. In the end, broadly speaking, almost everyone in Full Circle ends up with punishments exactly commensurate with the violence they inflicted on the world. That includes Mel, who can’t reapply for any law enforcement position for another year.

But that doesn’t feel quite right for such a deliberately messy, morally jagged story. And it slightly muddles Soderbergh and Ed Solomon’s class commentary to end with so much growth and reconciliation among the upper-class characters, along with such a straightforwardly successful defeat of violence and corruption.

To be sure, TV and film have had more than their fill of eat-the-rich fantasies in recent years, and I wasn’t actively rooting for the Brownes to suffer more (or for, say, Louis to die just to prove a point). There are productive contrasts to draw when you ask which characters are given the space and support system to grow and which aren’t. Take the first season of The White Lotus, which ended with a group of rich vacationers either learning lessons from their week of paradise or refusing to — but no matter what transpired, they got to return home to their comfortable home lives at the end of the week. That was a privilege the underpaid, disrespected, traumatized staff wasn’t afforded.

There’s some of that same idea in this finale, especially with Mel’s closing suggestion that there’s a 50 percent chance Sam won’t do jail time at all. Her decision to atone for her mistakes many years later is a luxury, in a way, just like her noble sacrifice of a painting that never actually helped the recipients. A boy still died, and his grandfather is still here grieving.

But while Danes is always up to the task, I’m not sure the final focus on her point of view works completely for me, especially because it’s played mostly straight. It feels to me like this finale needed a more serious acknowledgment that some wrongs can’t be righted — there is no way of closing the circle. Perhaps the return to Guyana in the final moments is meant to send that message, with the eerie image of a sign for the Colony at Essequibo. But the tragedy doesn’t feel as acute as it should.

I don’t mean to be too down on this finale, which largely accomplishes what it set out to do. But looking back on these six episodes, I see a clean, frequently entertaining thriller with intriguing ideas and characters who moved around too much to ever fully come to life. It’s like that unbroken chalk circle left by Mr. Willoughby: full but with nothing inside.

Elliptical Thoughts

• “It’s always about money, money, money.” “Well, that’s what pays for things.”

• Last episode, Garmen’s comment about his plane holding only one additional passenger (besides his family) seemed to me a confirmation that he only planned to take Louis and Natalia’s money before killing them. But here, it sometimes feels like Xavier didn’t know Garmen’s plans until the last moment — if Xavier figured they were going to die regardless, why wait for Garmen to sign off on the painting idea?

• Joey ended up being a pretty pointless and unexplored character who had a sort of threatening energy that never really paid off.

• Another character deeply underserved is Clarence Joseph, who only appears here to freak out upon hearing from Jeff that the kidnappers shot the wrong kid. This guy occupies a very important role in the fabric of the narrative, but he doesn’t even get to tell his own story and call out Jeff’s complicity directly. That feels like a real missed opportunity.

• Another minor happy ending: Nicky is moving back in with his mom, and Jared is letting him keep most of the stuff he stole. But Nicky never really lived up to his potential as a character, especially with Jared so absent from the narrative after the first two episodes, and the earlier mention of his dissociative disorder now feels a bit like a loose end.

• We do see Jessup and Sanders inform Mahabir of Aked’s death, but the scene feels like it’s missing some resonance, maybe just because Soderbergh doesn’t hold on her reaction long enough. Her ending state of mind is unclear: Does she understand and regret the role she played in all this, or will she find a way to rationalize it?

• Thanks for reading! Always enjoy seeing whatever curiosity Soderbergh works on next, and this was a solid watch, even if it didn’t fully come together in the way I hoped. (Or it came together too much.)

Full Circle Finale Recap: All Roads Lead to Sam Browne